‘What sets improvisation apart from all other comedy is that there is magic being created before your very eyes. The jokes are being pulled from thin air so that as you are laughing at the comedy content, you are being amazed at the fact that we are making it up."
If anyone can explain this phenomenon, it’s Brad Sherwood. The Second City graduate and alumnus of the TV show "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" (currently re-running nightly on the ABC Family Channel) brings his unique brand of improv comedy back to New Jersey this month. Sherwood and his partner in crime, fellow "Whose-er" Colin Mochrie, will present their two-man show at the State Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, November 11. The popular duo was wildly successful at the Trenton War Memorial last May, and the year before that at the College
of New Jersey. Who knows what lines they have in store for New Brunswick?
Improv just may be the toughest form of comedy to do well. There are no set routines; nothing to fall back on, just a performer’s ability to take the audience’s suggestions and run wild. It may be a liberating experience, but you still have to know what you’re doing. Fortunately, Sherwood and Mochrie have perfected their craft with a 20-year apprenticeship.
"It’s a really great experience," Sherwood says. "There’s a certain kind of rush from making people laugh. It’s the adrenaline of going out there and not knowing what you are going to do. It’s a thrill like jumping out of an airplane or being on a roller coaster."
For those who have never been to a Sherwood-Mochrie show, the two comics come out onto a bare stage, explain the game they are going to do (Questions Only, perhaps, or Moving Bodies, or maybe New Choice) and ask the audience to write down or shout out suggestions when appropriate. Frequently, they will bring audience members onstage, all of whom always seem to be having a marvelous time.
One of the most popular games is Crime Scene, where Mochrie is sent out of the room while Sherwood and the audience make up a bizarre set of circumstances; when Mochrie comes back, he has to figure out, while Sherwood interrogates him, just who he is, and where and when he has committed what crime. Then there is the Mousetrap/Alphabet Game – difficult to describe, but let’s just say it involves bare feet, and a lot of pain on Sherwood and Mochrie’s part, and a lot of hilarity on the audience’s part.
Their show has become one of the most popular draws on the comedy circuit. Sherwood thinks he has a take on why the show has done so well. "It is the only thing out there that is truly raw in a world where so much entertainment has been either sanitized or spoon-fed. And we have probably the widest demographic of any live show out there. Most music acts or stand-ups have their niche – college kids, or the older set. We have people who bring their kids, seven, eight, nine years old, and people who are 65 or 70. I can’t think of one other thing except maybe ‘The Lion King’ that has that wide of a demographic. When ‘Whose Line?’ was on, one of the greatest compliments I got was when people would say, ‘It’s the only show I watch with my kids, or grandkids.’"
Speaking of "The Lion King," would Sherwood and Mochrie like to take the show to the Great White Way? "It’s been mentioned," says Sherwood, "but actually the money is not that great on Broadway. We’d have to take a pay cut, so we just as soon continue to go around the country. I would like to go to England. I’d love to go to Australia and New Zealand; they are big fans of the British version of "Whose Line?" It’s such universal comedy. So much of what Colin and I do is simple clowning – you don’t have to be clued in to the political climate of the U.S. or anything."
Simple clowning it may be, but don’t get the idea that it is easy. Mochrie and Sherwood have spent a great deal of time and effort in honing their craft. Neither is a joke-teller; in fact, Sherwood can be best described as a man who says things funny, rather than a man who says funny things. He can get more laughs just repeating the phrase "a jar of almonds" than most comics can get with an elaborate version of "The Aristocrats."
"It is an art, I think," says Sherwood pensively. "We are well-equipped with our sense of humor and theatrical backgrounds to make stuff funny out of thin air and to hold an audience’s attention."
And can anyone learn to do this? "I think you have to be born with the innate ability to improvise and be funny. I’ve been in so many workshops and groups, and I saw people that just never ascended, never got the funny gene. But then I saw other people who started out not knowing what to do and became funny. The element of improv is what you do every day of your life. Like when you drive in your car and you swerve to avoid someone – that’s unplanned, improvised. So it’s combining those instant reflexive instincts with the part of your brain that processes information and then returns it with the funny slant on it."
Most people go the show just to relax, be entertained, and laugh their brains out. But Sherwood feels there is one other element in play. "Audiences come because so many people love ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’" he explains. "They are pleasantly surprised that we are doing live improv. A lot of people think we knew what was happening in advance on ‘Whose Line?’ The only thing you can do is perform live and then if they don’t believe it, there’s nothing more you can do. We have so many people coming up to us after the show and saying ‘Come on, you didn’t know the suggestions?’ We have to explain to them that it would be much too expensive to travel with 60 audience members yelling out what we need. It’s kind of like we made the tiger disappear and they can’t figure out how. So they are trying to look for the trapdoor in our routine."
You may never spot that trapdoor at a Sherwood/Mochrie show, but you’ll have a great time looking for it.
An Evening with Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood, Friday, November 11, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Interactive show with stars of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" $25 to $50. 732-246-7469